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“Today’s furniture customer is different. Today’s furniture customer is more educated, more demanding and looking for more value.”

This is a quote I coined to illustrate the importance of customer centric selling and how I begin an introductory discussion in one of our most popular programs, Profitability by Design. The quote is designed to open a discussion about value and profitability. It’s also meant to create an awareness of how we must understand who today’s furniture customer is and what they truly desire, so we in the retail furniture world can meet those needs.

This quote illustrates the importance of three critical elements of sales and profitability. It prompts us to look closely at how we do business. More importantly, it requires a customer-centric focus on sales. We must understand the motivation of our customers in order to meet them where they are and move them to the sale. This often means our sales teams must operate differently to effectively understand and serve this customer.

To successfully connect, make the sale, and ultimately serve design focused customers, you have to do several things:
  • You have to seek to understand by listening to your customer.
  • You have to meet our customer’s needs, no matter how complex.
  • You have to exceed your customer’s expectations.
This understanding of furniture customers was derived through long experience in retail and design consulting at numerous home furnishings retailers. I also draw inspiration from the work of Professor Nicole Ponder of Mississippi State University. In her study, Consumer Attitudes and Buying Behavior for Home Furniture, Ponder studies a cross-section of consumers. Her findings paint a picture of today’s design-oriented customer. Chief among these are that many of them regard the aesthetic aspects of the purchase of furniture to be of primary importance. Below are two segments of her research describing consumer perceptions.

Furniture and the Self-Concept

Furniture is often seen as an extension of oneself and one’s image.

Consumers do treat the furniture purchase decision as important, since furniture can serve as an expression of one’s own identity and personality. A large 72.7% of respondents agreed that, “the design of my furniture reflects my personality,” 67.0% of respondents agreed with the statement, “A lot can be said about a person from the furniture s/he owns,” and 60.7% agreed that they express themselves with the furniture they buy. Regarding furniture as an expression of one’s personality, there were no differences across generational groups, but, not surprisingly, females were more likely than males to agree with this statement. (Ponder, Mississippi State University, 2013)

Favorite Furniture in the Home

There is a direct correlation between the fondness for specific pieces of furniture and the placement of this furniture (i.e. often favorite furnishings are found in the rooms of the home that are used for entertaining and creating emotional memories).

The emotional nature of owning furniture that reflects one’s personality is evident when respondents provide information about the favorite room and favorite furniture in their homes. Many people are proud of their furniture and took the time over the course of this study to describe favorite pieces in great detail. Over half of the sample named the living room/den/family room their favorite room. When asked why this room was their favorite, respondents overwhelmingly mentioned the living room as a place where the entire family shares the happenings in each other’s lives. (Ponder, Mississippi State University, 2013)

Because design evolves, tastes change, and consumer desires realign, it’s important to continue to keep up with buying trends and preferences.

Today’s furniture customers are vastly different from those of years past. Their new preferences have been shaped by society, trends and design influences. Because of this, it’s important to understand what specific influences have shaped today’s furniture customer.

Let’s explore four of the major influences.

Home & Garden Television Evolution: Years ago Home & Garden Television, began a trend of misinformation and do-it-yourself design that didn’t accurately represent budget, time investment and results. Early design and decorating television programming was not a friend of the home furnishings retailer. It painted a scenario that everyone could have the room of their dreams with a $1000 budget and a 48-hour time frame; this created unrealistic expectations for redecorating and remodeling. These well-intentioned customers came into our furniture stores and design studios with expectations that we were in no way able to meet, much less exceed. This posed both customer satisfaction and profitability issues for the furniture and design industries.

The good news is that the quality of programming and the viewership (over 43 million viewers) has improved dramatically. This led to a beautiful thing happening. Design became accessible and furniture manufacturers responded. There was a time when only a small percentage of the population was tuned into style and more sophisticated home fashion. Today there is style and design available at virtually every price point and the furniture-buying public loves it. Furniture customers now have the resources to be design-oriented. Regardless of their budget, they are looking for style, so retailers need to be positioned to respond appropriately. If great merchandise is displayed, the challenge becomes making sure sales teams have the knowledge, skills and the ability to connect.

Pinterest:  Pinterest is a social media platform that is visually based and lends itself well to design. Users create and share collections of photos (on individual virtual boards). This creates an online visual catalog of their likes and can be a useful tool to understanding design trends and customer preferences. Think of it as a virtual vision or bulletin board.

With 70 million users, Pinterest is nothing short of a phenomenon. It has given everyone, creative types and those who are not, a brilliant opportunity to express themselves. It also serves as a resource library so your customers know they can go to Pinterest and find great examples of whatever piece, style, trend, they are interested in. This can also be a useful tool for designers and furniture stores when marketing new trends.

Houzz:  Houzz is a web site and online community about architecture, interior design and decorating, landscape design and home improvement. (Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Houzz is a design junkie’s paradise. It is another great resource for building “ideabooks” that serve as a collection of ideas, looks, and concepts. Our furniture customers are pulling design concepts from this site and forming expectations based on what they see. They then look to you to meet those expectations and act as their real-world design resource.

Print Magazines:  Good old-fashioned design and shelter magazines have not yet gone the way of the landline.

Furniture customers still read House Beautiful, comb through Architectural Digest and daydream over copies of Dwell. The beauty of this is these magazines display examples of fully designed rooms that include accessories, area rugs and accents. It’s an influence that can only help retailers (management and sales associates) who take time to study what motivates them in order to meet and exceed expectations.

Here are three strategies you can use to connect with today’s design-oriented customer.

1. Education: You must offer formal, training that teaches sales professionals to understand design fundamentals and encourages an awareness of design and style trends. This program must be ongoing and include a plan to keep your staff up to date on influences such as the four mentioned earlier in this article. This will both enhance their sales skills and boost confidence. Once your sales team understands and feels comfortable with these influences, challenge them to incorporate this knowledge into their own selling process. Their comfort and familiarity with Houzz or Pinterest will lay the groundwork for connecting with today’s design-oriented customer.

2. Represent With Great Display: To the furniture customer, you, the retail furniture store are their real-life link to the design community. In other words, your store needs to look the part. Don’t underestimate the impact of your visual merchandising. Get creative and when it comes to your showroom floor, dress to impress and put some edge and creativity into your visual display. Floor some merchandise that reflects current trends and utilize digital media to showcase trendier pieces or concepts that you don’t want to risk flooring. Great display can inspire customers to buy and signals to them that there is an understanding of design in this environment. Don’t be afraid to bring in experts to assist when incorporating new trends and social media strategies.

3. Court Your Customers. Today’s design-oriented customers need to feel understood and appreciated. Take a page from the dating playbook (think back, way back, if necessary), acknowledge your customers’ great ideas, style choices, and act as their best resource and design advocate. Don’t forget to let them know you are excited about helping, and truly appreciate their business. Ask intuitive questions and really listen to the answers. In other words, express interest! Indifference is the kiss of death with a design-oriented customer.

To summarize, the future of sales and profitability lies in the customer experience. Your design-oriented customer is style and tech-savvy. If you want to connect with them and have the opportunity to build a relationship you have to be at the top of your game. The in-store experience has to be so amazing that the lure of online retailers is not nearly as appealing. The supporting context is to create successful customer interactions, requiring that you understand your customer, work to meet his or her needs, present stylish solutions that knock their socks off, and make sure they leave your stores feeling understood and appreciated. Working to build the confidence of sales professionals through formal training can be a major contributor that helps customers feel good about their choices. The key here is confidence and knowledge of new trends, expectations, and overcoming fears while cementing a lasting and highly profitable relationship.

Who Said It? Comments From the Study Concerning the Significance of Home Furniture

“Home furniture makes the house feel like a home. It represents a person’s style and personality. It makes the rooms more comfortable and relaxing and inviting to family and guests.” -40 year old Caucasian male in Wisconsin.

“Furniture is a reflection of me and I work hard to ensure that the spaces in my home do so, and are comfortable and usable, both casually and for entertaining, of which I do a lot.” -38 year old African-American female in Texas.

“Home furniture makes you feel good about spending time in the room and it can put you in a good mood when you are having a rough day. -37 year old Hispanic male in New York.

“Furniture is a reflection on my style, taste in decorating, and my success in life.” -66 year old Caucasian male in Pennsylvania.

“I am very proud of my furniture and also my art work. It reflects who I am and what I believe in. I like who I am!” -69 year old Caucasian female in Ohio.

“Furniture is an extension of me. It has to be functional but classically designed and high quality. Color is an important way to express my personality in my furnishings.” -51 year old Filipino female in New York.

“Furniture is one of the things that make you feel at home. It reflects your personality.” -55 year old Caucasian female in Michigan.

“Home furniture is simply magical. It pays to invest a lot in home furniture as it has a way of livening up one’s mood. If it’s good, it could make a good day great, and if it’s bad, it could make a bad day worse.” -31 year old African- American male in Maryland.

“Furniture makes a home a home and it tells your story. When you select it for your home, your family should be in on the selection as a whole. With their thoughts, it will make a difference.” -52 year old African- American male in Louisiana.

“I like furniture – it makes a home a home and reflects a sense of comfort.” -21 year old Caucasian female in Arkansas.

-Above Quotes from, “Consumer Attitudes and Buying Behavior for Home  Furniture” by Professor Nicole Ponder of Mississippi State University.

Note: Professor Nicole Ponder ‘s study can be found online at http://www.ffi.msstate.edu/pdf/consumer_attitudes. pdf. The quotes highlighted in this article are reproduced from that study with permission.

About René Johnston-Gingrich: René Johnston-Gingrich is Vice President of Training Development for the Profitability Consulting Group, delivering programs such as Design Trac: Design Skills for Retail Sales People and Sales Trac III: In Home Selling. René has owned and operated an interior design firm for 17 years and now works with organizations to ensure they have the best possible team environment.


René served as a regular columnist for The Lewiston Tribune Business Profile and is an adjunct faculty member of Lewis-Clark State College’s Business Division. René has a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Interior Planning and Design and a Master’s Degree in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. She can be contacted at reneg@profitabilityconsulting.com.


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